Willpower And Habit Formation: The Secret To Creating New Habits

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Did you know that, on average, it takes 66 days to form a new habit? The process of habit formation can be difficult and sometimes complicated, but habits may enable us to improve our mental health and overall well-being. Cultivating healthy habits can feel like an uphill battle in a fast-paced world filled with endless distractions and demands. We often find ourselves caught in a cycle of good intentions, only to lose momentum and slip back into old, unhelpful patterns. Still, it can be possible to break free from this cycle and create lasting change. You may find it helpful to set clear goals, manage stress, and create a supportive environment. Online therapy may be another beneficial tool to employ as you form new habits.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
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Understanding willpower and habit formation

Willpower typically refers to the mental energy used to exert self-control, make decisions, and regulate behavior. It can be thought of as a muscle that can be strengthened with practice.

While it was once thought that willpower was a limited resource, more recent research has indicated that this may not be the case. Instead, the current belief regarding willpower generally states that willpower can be unlimited so long as an individual believes it is unlimited. In other words, a person’s mindset regarding how much willpower they have tends to impact the amount of willpower they’re able to employ.

Now that we have a solid understanding of willpower, let's dive into the mechanics of habit formation. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, introduced the concept of the habit loop, which can be defined as a three-step process that governs how habits form and unfold.

In general, the first step in the habit loop is the cue. Cues often act as a signal to our brains to initiate a particular habit. Cues can be external, such as a specific time of day, a visual cue, or a change in environment. They can also be internal, like an emotional state or a thought pattern.

The second step can be the routine. Your routine can be the behavior or action you engage in as a response to the cue. This can be as simple as reaching for a sugary snack when feeling stressed or going for a run after waking up in the morning.

The third and final step is typically the reward. Rewards help reinforce habits because they usually satisfy a craving or provide a sense of pleasure or relief. Rewards can be physical, emotional, or even psychological. For example, the reward for going for a run can be a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Six strategies for building willpower and creating new habits

Although building willpower and picking up new habits can pose many challenges, there are strategies you can employ to boost willpower and increase your chances of success.

Set clear goals and prioritize habits

When you define what you want to achieve, break it down into manageable steps, and establish a clear roadmap, you can give yourself an achievable goal to strive for. You can also prioritize your habits, focusing on the ones that are most important and will have the greatest impact on your life.

Identify cues and rewards

Recognizing cues and rewards can help you understand patterns and identify the situations that lead to certain behaviors. By knowing your patterns, you can plan ahead to build more positive habits instead of reflexively engaging in less desirable behaviors.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Manage stress

Stress can impact our ability to think clearly and make smart decisions, so finding ways to relax and reduce stress levels may be beneficial when initiating a new habit. Techniques like mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing can be helpful in managing stress levels.

Promote healthy energy levels

Taking breaks, getting enough rest, and engaging in activities that make you feel good can help you stay energized to fulfill your goals.

Create a supportive environment

Your environment can play a role in determining whether you succeed in making new habits stick. Surrounding yourself with people who will support your efforts and engaging in activities that help you stay focused and motivated can increase your chances of success.

Practice emotional intelligence and self-awareness

Self-awareness and emotional intelligence can help you recognize when you’re struggling with new habits, allowing you to take a step back and adjust your approach.

Creating new habits often takes time and effort, but the benefits can be invaluable. To maintain consistency, starting small and gradually increasing your efforts over time may be a helpful approach. Focusing on one habit at a time may allow you to establish a solid foundation and build momentum, increasing the likelihood of success.

Tracking your progress can also contribute to success. You can use habit-tracking apps, journals, or calendars to record your habits and see your progress. Remember to celebrate your achievements, no matter how small they may seem.

Obstacles and temptations are often inevitable, but you can prepare contingency plans and strategies to overcome them. You can stay focused and motivated when you view setbacks as opportunities to learn and refine your approach.

There may be no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to forming habits, so it can be best to try different approaches to see what works best for you.

The role of accountability and social support

Making yourself accountable can increase the likelihood of success by providing a sense of motivation and commitment to your routine. To hold yourself accountable, you may rely on self-discipline and internal motivation or enlist the help of a friend or family member to monitor your progress. You can even use online tools to keep track of your habits and check in with yourself regularly.

A support system can be another way to stay on track and increase your motivation. Being surrounded by people who understand your goals and encourage your efforts can provide the extra boost of morale you need to accomplish your objectives.

Ready to take control of your habits and change your life?

How therapy can help build willpower

Working with a therapist can be an effective way to boost your willpower and stay on track as you develop new habits. Flexibility can make online therapy a convenient resource for anyone looking to strengthen their willpower and form lasting habits. Since it takes place virtually, online therapy can be attended from anywhere you’re comfortable, potentially eliminating the awkwardness and self-consciousness of face-to-face sessions. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is frequently used to help individuals develop new habits, and studies suggest that online CBT can be as effective as face-to-face CBT. By reframing negative thought patterns, online CBT may increase your motivation and provide you with the willpower and resilience you need to sustain healthy habits.

Regardless of your approach, remaining committed and consistent in your efforts can be the key. As you continue to build momentum, you'll likely become more confident in your ability to form successful habits and stay on track.


When you view willpower as an unlimited resource, you may find that you can use it to your advantage as you form new habits. In addition, you can acquire the skills you need to sustain the long-term behavior changes you desire through increased awareness, accountability, social support, and the use of evidence-based treatments like online therapy.
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